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Close Encounters

March 3, 2010 \ Places to Live
by Chris Simmonds
Close Encounters

A few weeks ago central London woke up to a quiet revolution. At one of Europe’s busiest junctions something occurred that a few years before would have been seen as fanciful or even dangerous. On November 1st Boris Johnson unveiled a new ‘ Tokyo style’ X-crossing at Oxford Circus with the clang of a giant Japanese cymbal. But beneath the razzmatazz of the mayor’s eccentric PR stunt lay something more significant. The old world order of road user hierarchies had been shaken up and the cause of ‘reclaiming the streets’ had finally entered the mainstream. What the X-crossing did was to sweep away the barriers and ‘no-go zone’ of a box junction and replace it with wide brightly coloured pedestrian routes in all directions. As if to further celebrate the move a large red circle dominated the centre of the junction to further mark-out the newly defined territory of the pedestrian. When the lights changed suddenly London gained a new public square.

Back in Scotland the Scottish Government has also been shaking things up. A new document, Designing Streets, which was put out to consultation at the beginning of the year, will change the way streets in residential areas are designed, opening up opportunities for Urban Design that have been denied to architects for much of the post war era. Central to this new guidance is the principle that streets should be designed for pedestrians first, cyclists’ second, public transport third and, at the bottom, private cars. It changes the function of street design from focussing on movement to its role in place-making putting the emphasis on the role of street design to create ‘well designed streets and spaces that serve the community in a number of ways.’

A varied mix of influences has brought about this turnaround: There is now more awareness of the dangers of speeds above 20 mph causing serious accidents and fatalities. There is a growing concern about rising levels of obesity caused, in part, by people exercising less and leading inactive lives through greater car use. Lastly there is a global campaign to promote low-carbon forms of transport in the interests of the environment. But the inspiration for this changing agenda can probably be traced back to Holland in the 1970’s with the introduction of the ‘Woonerf’.

The Dutch devised a national strategy of linking major Towns and cities with high-speed motorways but when it came to residential areas created zones for slow moving traffic to ensure safer neighbourhoods. Woonerfs typically featured paved ‘shared surfaces’ with little or no delineation between pavement and road. Parking layouts and planting were set out to create obstacles to traffic flow forcing cars to slow down to walking pace. The key was getting motorists to slow down enough to be able to make eye contact with other road users. This was a more effective way of controlling traffic than with signs and rules. It also enabled children to be able to play safely in the streets and for people to generally enjoy the street spaces in which they lived.

A notable example of this was the Haarlemmer Houttuinen housing project the architect Herman Herzberger designed for Amsterdam along a thin strip of land between a busy road and an existing residential area. Because of a narrow site there was no space for back gardens so Herzberger conceived of the main access street as a recreational space or ‘living street’. The 7m width of the street was broken up with tree planting, benches and cycle racks in such a way that traffic would be slowed down or blocked if cars were parked inadvertently. This informal arrangement was the perfect foil to the quirky balconies and social spaces Herzberger so beloved in his housing and a logical continuation of the way he encouraged people to personalise their environment.

In the UK the Woonerf Idea was taken up in the Home Zone movement which gained ground in the early 21st century with the publication of Home Zone Guidelines in 2002 and the Home zone Challenge in 2005, which promoted a number of pilot projects throughout the UK. What was interesting about the Home zone phenomenon was that, unlike the Dutch example it wasn’t conceived as a ‘top-down’ governmental reorganisation but a ‘bottom-up’ community–led initiative where local people were consulted and had a say in the re-design of their streets. In addition it was quite free-spirited as it set-out to tear-up the rule book of street design but was insistent on not creating a new one, encouraging local groups to come up with unique solutions.

Although a number of home zone projects involved re-working existing streets, one notable new-build project was developed by Wayne Hemmingway in conjunction with Wimpey. In the Staithes housing development on Tyneside shared space was developed not only in the street but also in back-court areas, where, alongside the normal bin stores and drying areas, outdoor table tennis tables and games areas were built-in. Car parking, which was allowed for throughout the scheme was generally hidden away from view so that it did not become a predominant feature. Cars could rarely be parked in front of houses so walking and cycling became more common and the casual social interaction these short walks generated helped create community cohesion.

More recently in Craigmillar we became involved in the first phase of housing development in the ambitious regeneration project for the area, and in the Wauchope Square masterplan we were encouraged to incorporate Home Zone principles and use them to shape the new street layout we were creating. Under the direction of Ian Wall at EDI/PARC we saw there was an opportunity to reduce the amount of space given over to roads and pavements that could, in turn, increase the amount of space given over to gardens and housing development. We could achieve a high density, low -rise development without a net loss of amenity, indeed, by being able to push buildings closer together to create small, intimate courtyard spaces a better quality urban environment could be achieved. To do this involved a lot of experimentation and council consultation, as we didn’t have the roads guidelines to fall back on. What emerged, though, through a positive dialogue with the Edinburgh planners and roads department were a series of ‘rules’ we developed as we went along:

Firstly we wanted to make streets ‘different’. The three new streets had very different characters. One was a mews street where the streets were offset to slow down traffic and create a series of courtyard spaces. Another was a straight street, with a clear view to the end but was carved out on one side to create a sequence of garden courts. The other street was a wide parking street that acted as a buffer zone against the main Niddrie Mains Road.

Secondly we wanted streets to always connect. There were to be no cul-de-sacs and no isolated pockets of development. Indeed the small mews street connected into an existing cul-de-sac improving the permeability and ‘connectedness’ of the area.

Thirdly traffic calming had to be integrated into the street design. This was done in a number of ways, either through physically moving buildings to divert roads, manipulating planting areas to narrow roads or by using shared surfaces with no delineated pavements, to disorientate drivers into slowing down.

Fourthly there should be no radius curves. This seemingly trivial rule was essential in establishing a ‘pedestrian first’ street. All surfaces and paved areas were delineated in rectangles and right angles with a view to treating street spaces as a series of linked ‘squares’. Where traffic couldn’t go round any of these corners, from swept path analysis, discrete run off areas would be provided, but these too were rectangular to tie into the general paving strategy. The hard landscaping, designed by Ian White Associates was of a high quality and critical to the success of the scheme.

Finally there should be no left – over spaces. Every space should be used and accounted for. Through realising the amount of road space we could dispense with we found we could find room for a small garden square at the key junction where four angled streets met. This would probably have become a roundabout or traffic island had the old council rules applied.

Coming back to the development regularly over the course of the past year it was interesting to see how the community were using these new spaces. Within seconds of the first sections being opened up local kids on bikes were claiming the streets as their own, free to ride on any part of the carriageway as they saw fit. More recently we’ve noticed that residents have started to park their cars in the non-narrowed part of the ‘straight’ street, reducing it down to one lane and thus doing effective things about traffic control in their areas that we as designers were not allowed to do. At the end of the day these spontaneous, unpredictable interventions by local people are the kind of things Home Zones were originally conceived to do back in the 1970’s. We look forward to their continuing development over the next 30 years.

One Size Fits All?

September 16, 2009 \ Creative Workspace
by Karen Pickering
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